Subway, bus costs high; light and commuter rail compare well

Globe Staff / October 18, 2009

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Heavy rail
The traditional subway system - Red, Blue, and Orange lines - is the most popular form of transportation on the T, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the 1.2 million trips taken each weekday.

It costs the T about $12 for every mile a subway train travels, the fifth costliest among the nation’s 15 similar rail systems. But because those expenses are spread among so many passengers at the T, it costs $1.82 to carry each passenger, the third least expensive system in that regard, according to the most recently available national data from 2007 budgets.

Unlike systems that use a single type of car for all their lines, the T’s subway cars vary in length and design and do not run interchangeably. That increases costs.

In Chicago, the El runs a standard vehicle on eight of its lines. In Boston, “you need separate garages, separate storerooms, separate maintenance facilities,’’ said Frederick Salvucci, a former transportation secretary who teaches at MIT.

The T also uses separate operating rules for each line. The Blue Line, for example, runs with only one operator on each train, while the other two lines require two operators, unlike almost every other transit system in the nation.

Light rail
Federal guidelines classify the Green Line separately from the other subway lines because it is powered by an overhead electrical wire, instead of an electrified third rail.

It is considered the busiest of the 27 American light-rail systems operating, many of which are relatively new and located in cities such as Charlotte, N.C., and Minneapolis.

The Green line is full of quirks. Downtown, it runs underground like a subway. In some locations, it runs above ground on its own tracks. And in other areas, it runs in and out of highway traffic like a bus. To complicate matters further, the MBTA also classifies the Mattapan Trolley, a vintage 2.6-mile loop track through Dorchester, Milton, and Mattapan, as light rail. It runs updated 1940s-era cars.

Those differences can make the system more costly to run than some more modern light-rail systems, which were built to run above ground and apart from car traffic, with more automation and fewer employees.

The Green Line costs about $21 for every mile it travels, the ninth most expensive system in that regard. But it is fourth least expensive per passenger, at $1.72.

Nearly 30 percent of MBTA trips are taken on a bus. The costs are relatively high, $10.64 per mile, seventh highest among the nation’s 30 biggest bus operators. But again, per-passenger costs are lower, $3.04 per trip, ranking the T as the 19th most expensive bus service.

The system’s 1,000-bus fleet has at least five types of equipment, including buses of two different sizes that run on diesel, some that run on compressed natural gas, others that run on electric wire, and dual-mode buses that alternate between overhead electrical wire and diesel fuel. The T will introduce a sixth type of bus, a hybrid diesel, sometime next year.

Commuter rail
The commuter rail system, which serves about 70,000 people a day, is run by an outside contractor and generally scores among the least expensive systems in the country, by several measures. It’s the fourth least expensive among 21 systems on a per-mile basis; none of the other 20 systems was less expensive on a per-passenger basis, according to federal statistics.

But commuters have complained at times about late service on the trains, which ranked among the tardiest in the country in a Globe survey conducted in December 2007.

The operating company, Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., has improved on-time performance significantly in recent months, with more than 90 percent of trains arriving within five minutes of their scheduled time every month this year. Managers hope that the T agrees to extend its current contract by two years, through 2013.

Water and disabled transportation service
The T’s ferry boat and disabled transportation systems are a small but significant part of the T’s operations. Both are operated by outside contractors. Ferry service is less expensive than others around the country by most measures. Disabled service costs less per mile, but is more expensive per passenger than that provided by other agencies surveyed.